Sunday, 12 July 2015

"The Suburbs shall shake at the sound of the cry of thy pilots " Ezekiel xxvii 28

Image of crash on 9 September 1936
A prescient post from U3A project member Peter Day explores the potential dangers of living near to Croydon Airport:

The positioning of airports was as controversial in the 1930s as it is today. Low flying, night flying, noisy engines - and crashes, all contributed to a degree of ill-will from local residents. In the case of Croydon this came to a head on the morning of December 9th 1936. On that foggy morning a KLM DC2 crashed into houses near the airport shortly after take-off resulting in the deaths of 15 passengers and crew. This was the worst air accident there had been in the UK in terms of the number killed and a storm of protest blew up with questions in Parliament, local protest meeting and petitions to the Air Ministry.

The fated DC2
In 1931 Croydon was the first airport to introduce a new technology, as suggested by pilots, to enable take-offs in foggy weather. A white line was painted across the field running broadly east to west and when it came time to depart pilots would line up on this guideline and follow it on their take-off run, even though they were unable to see the far end of the runway. In a westerly direction there were no obstacles to their climb.

In 1934, though, an Air France machine taking off in fog crashed into a radio mast built quite close to the end of the white line, killing the two crew members. The radio mast was subsequently reduced in height.

On December 9th 1936 the morning was foggy. The pilot of a fully loaded, Amsterdam-bound KLM DC2, Captain Hautzmeyer, positioned his plane at the beginning of the white line and commenced his take-off run. However within 200 metres he lost sight of the line and the aeroplane began to veer to the left. Captain Hautzmeyer should have followed the rules that said the take-off should be abandoned if the pilot lost sight of the line, but he continued with his take-off thinking he was still close to the line.

It had turned through 90 degrees and only just become airborne when the wheels struck and demolished a section of the aerodrome's boundary fence. The plane continued to climb away but was now heading South toward rising ground and the houses on Hillcrest Road. It hit the roof of a house on the north side of the road, then struck a telegraph pole and lost a wing and came to rest against the front of number 25, which was badly damaged but fortunately had no occupants at the time. There was a fire and only four survived the initial crash, though the pilot died within 3 hours and the radio operator within three days.

One of the dead passengers was Admiral Arvid Lindman, a former Prime Minister of Sweden, and another Senor Juan de la Cierva, the inventor of the autogiro. A German businessman survived as did a stewardess who fell from the plane as it somersaulted across the road, though she came to a bad end as it turned out she had been spying for the Germans and was later tried and imprisoned.

The three KLM DC2s - the one that crashed is closest to the camera.
On the day following the crash a question was asked in the House of Commons about the advisability of having pilots alone decide whether or not a take-off was practical in foggy weather, this question was considered by the jury at the inquest in the following January and they were of the opinion that there should be an airport official to be the ultimate decision maker in such cases.

The Beddington & Wallington Ratepayers Association organised a petition calling for the removal of the aerodrome as residents "lived in constant fear". They had petitioned the Air Ministry earlier in 1936 about the nuisance of low flying. In the event the new petition simply repeated their protest against "unnecessarily low and dangerous flying at Croydon Airport".

Peter Day

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